The Hostage by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj

This Yemeni novel, in what I assume is a coincidental parallel to Orwell, was written in 1984 but set in 1948; it’s about a boy who has been taken hostage by the Imam to ensure his father’s political obedience and is sent to work as a duwaydar in the Governor’s palace. A duwaydar was a personal servant, a pre-pubescent boy who filled the role that would once have been given to a eunuch: being able to work in the women’s areas of the palace without any risk to their chastity.

However, the women of the palace do in fact seek out the boys in search of sexual gratification; this is a novel about loss of innocence, about people who are trapped (the women as well as the hostage), about a somewhat toxic intersection of emotional, sexual and power relationships. It is also, I think, a political novel in its portrayal of the Imams’ rule as decadent and arbitrary. And in the background political events are rumbling, although they only appear as echoes within the tightly circumscribed world of the novel.

I find it quite difficult to pick passages to quote for these posts — something which more or less stands alone and gives some idea of what the book is like. But anyway. Here, our hero has just smoked his first cigarette.

It left me floating in a daze, and all I could remember next morning was that my friend hadn’t stayed therewith me, because two women, neither of them Zahra, had taken him and sat on the palace steps, kissing him and squeezing further pleasures out of him. When he came back, I remember, he slammed the door violently behind him, then sank down to sleep more deeply than I’d ever seen him sleep before.

How difficult it was to wake up in this city, so different from the fortress in the mountains, with its fresh, invigorating air! In the city, you always seemed to wake with the feeling that you’d been beaten black and blue, with your body swollen like a drum or the stump of a palm tree and your eyes drooping. From the very beginning there was a lingering feeling of nausea and depression, and you didn’t usually feel the least desire for breakfast or coffee. All you wanted was cool water, and that was only to be found, if at all, in the soldiers’ jugs.

The Hostage is my book from Yemen for the Read The World challenge.

» Note on the author’s name: there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how to transcribe Arabic words, and I’ve seen it written in various different ways [Zayd or Zaid, Muttee, Mutee or Muti]. Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj is the spelling used in this edition; the author’s page in the Library of Congress catalogue is under Zayd Muṭīʻ Dammāj.

The picture is ‘the view of the village from a vindow of the Imam’s palace in Wadi Dhar’ and is © Franco Pecchio but used under a CC attribution licence.

Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I was originally considering Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land* as my book from Yemen for the Read The World challenge, but I’ve tracked down a novel by an actual Yemeni writer which is available in English⁑, so I’ll read that at some stage. I still wanted to read Travels in Dictionary Land, though, because I very much enjoyed Mackintosh-Smith’s two books† following in the footsteps of the medieval Arab traveller Ibn Battutah.

Sana'a old city, Yemen

I’m not quite sure how long Mackintosh-Smith had lived in Yemen when this book was published 10 years ago, but he still lives there; he is clearly deeply engaged with Arab culture, history and language generally and Yemen in particular — in fact, living in San’a and chewing qat, I think in the terminology of the Empire they would have said he has gone native — and the book mixes what you might call straight travel writing with historical context and snippets of literature and mythology.

I think it’s easiest to just quote a couple of passages.

Very occasionally they [scorpions] are found in bunches of qat. Once, a baby one walked out of my bundle and across my lap, and disappeared among the leavings in the the middle of the room. I have never seen qat-chewers move faster. Another creature that sometimes pops up in qat is the fukhakh, the hisser — the Yemeni name for the chameleon. Its blood taken externally is a cure for baldness, but its breath makes your teeth fall out.. The gecko too is often killed, as it eats the remains of food from around your mouth as you sleep, pisses and gives you spots. Despite this I have been attached to several that have grown up in my house as they are clever flycatchers and converse, like the Hottentots, in clicks.

Or, in a bar in Aden:

Then the band broke into a sort of Egyptian glam-rock number and, unexpectedly, the floor filled with young men dressed in Paisley pattern shirts and pleated trousers. The number of pleats seemed to reflect their prowess at dancing. One particularly energetic youth — a twenty-pleater — shone out: his pelvis was articulated in extraordinary places, and spurts of sweat shot from his forehead. These were the mutamaykalin, the Michaelesques — the fans of Michael Jackson.

So, generally speaking, enjoyable stuff. Some of the political/history passages are less gripping than the travel anecdotes, but at least I now know a lot more about Yemen.

* sold under the title Yemen: The Unknown Arabia in the US.
The Hostage, by Zayd Mutee‘ Dammaj.
Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns.

» The photo of Sana’a old town in Yemen is © eesti and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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